Recently, I saw the Doha Debates, which is a show that debates controversial political, social and religious issues. Journalist and mediator Tim Sebastian proposes a motion and the speakers on the panel discuss the topic at length. The audience then has an opportunity to respond to the panel. The latest motion proposed: “This house believes that Muslim women should be free to marry anyone they choose.”
There were four speakers on the panel. For the motion there was American Muslim feminist Asra Nomani, who has authored several books. Also for the motion, there was Dr. Muhammad Habash, a member of parliament and a cleric. Against the motion were Shaykh Yasir Qadhi and Dr. Thuraya Al Arrayed, a Saudi writer, columnist and member of the advisory board of the Arab Thought Foundation.
Nomani began the debate with an emotional tone, declaring that Muslim women face barriers and that “just about every Muslim woman” encounters these barriers and internalizes them, and that she does not have the right to choose when it comes to marriage. She then directly addresses Muslim women and reassures them that she doesn’t wish that they suffer forced or loveless marriages.
With the way Nomani is carrying on, you’d think she was convinced she was shaking the very sheltered world of Muslim women. Apparently, we’re not aware of our rights! In her self-aggrandizement, Nomani homogenizes Muslim women’s experiences and assumes that every Muslim woman has had the same experience as her. That yes, we are all doomed to the same fate.
True, there are Muslim women like Nomani who marry either through some sort of coercion or just to keep their family happy–I also agree with her point that these women will be the ones who share their bed with their husbands at the end. However, Nomani seems to think that these experiences are the experiences of the vast majority of Muslim women–where we are helpless beings who are victims of our community and our imposing families, who Nomani assumes don’t want the best for us. She thus undermines the importance of family within the context of Muslim marriage. I’m not saying women have to follow the decisions of their families, but many women and men will be thinking that family does matter in many of the decisions we make for ourselves, including marriage. In other words, choice comes with responsibility and it does at times mean we consider everything, not just ourselves.
Nomani’s entire argument is predicated on a particular construction of the Muslim woman which she deploys to legitimize her claim: she is just chattel, in shackles, and silenced by her subjugation. Nomani belittles the minds of Muslim women because she assumes they lack agency of their own and cannot comprehend their supposed suffering. In doing so, Nomani constructs herself as their savior, the enlightened one who recognizes their oppression– the liberal light at the end of this oppressive dark tunnel that is their unfortunate experience.
I found it interesting that Nomani’s extremely liberal position was juxtaposed with the other Muslim woman, who was opposed to the motion. Dr. Al Arrayed opposes the motion because she believes that anyone 27 and under bases their decisions on physical attraction and that they are not responsible enough to be making important decisions like this– so the role of the family is essential. Her simplistic position is mired by her lack of faith in young Muslim women and their responsible attitude to such issues like marriage—which a woman in the audience pointed out. However, I do agree with Dr. Al Arrayed’s overall point that family is important in these decisions and it is dangerous to deny this reality because it could lead to women being isolated.
What was interesting is the issue of children did not come up in the debate. For me, my decision to marry a Muslim man is affirmed when it comes to the faith of my children. I would not want my children to belong to any other faith but Islam. Keep in mind, this is not only an issue women who marry non-Muslims have to face but also men who do.
Supporting the motion, Dr. Habash begins his defense declaring there is no compulsion in religion and so we should extend this to marriage, too (I think he was a little confused with his position and often would agree with the opposing side). However, no compulsion in religion does not mean a Muslim shouldn’t abide by the laws of her religion—she has the choice not to, of course, but if she wishes to practice her religion, there are certain rules and practices that need to be followed as part of worship. Sure, a Muslim woman can marry who she wants, but the question here is, is there religious justification for this unlimited freedom? Dr. Habash refers to the hadith of when the Prophet was approached by a woman who told him of how she was forced to marry but later agreed with her father’s decision. The Prophet then told her he’ll absolve the marriage but she assured him she was now happy in her marriage but wanted to let women know that the father has no right to do such a thing which the Prophet agreed. Habash takes from this hadith the principle that women should be able to choose who she should marry, regardless of the faith of the person. However, as Shaykh Qadhi points out, we cannot be selective with our religion because Habash is ignoring what Islam has to say about a woman marrying a non-Muslim.
As I listened to Nomani’s concern over the depressing fate of Muslim women, I thought, why isn’t she mentioning the importance of recognizing cultural ideas and customs that have infiltrated how we conceptualise and perceive Islam? Her analysis was simple: Muslim women are downtrodden; there was no attempt to contextualise and understand this further. To compensate for Nomani’s reductive observation, Shaykh Qadhi and Dr. Al Arrayed point out that yes, there are women who are oppressed in our communities in the name of religion, but Islam is not responsible for any oppression that occurs, rather it is cultural and tribal prejudice which justify oppressive practices. These practices are the antithesis to Islam’s principles of equality and justice which are protected in its law. Importantly, Shaykh Qadhi explains how this is not a problem of the uneducated In our community but those who have committed themselves to the study of religion, who may consciously or unconsciously introduce their own cultural prejudice that affects how they view Islam. This was imperative to the debate I thought because of the dichotomy that Nomani was desperately trying to establish.
Nomani posited herself as the liberal defender of Muslim women against the oppressive religious leadership that Shaykh Qadhi—with his long beard (as opposed to the more subtle beard of Habash) represented. When Shaykh Qadhi objected to her removal of any boundaries and warned that limitations are a part of our religion, she would turn to the audience and say “that is their interpretation” in her attempt to marginalize him. In fact, she was well prepared for this response and early on in the debate warned of the theological arguments that she claimed lay the barriers for women.
Shaykh Qadhi undermined this false dichotomy in pointing out that there are elements of the religious establishment who are tainted by cultural understandings and that we should resist this. However, Nomani wasn’t interested in hearing a shaykh criticize women’s oppression in our community— that was simply not the role Nomani had decided for him.
In the end, the motion was passed (62%). I was actually surprised, but Shaykh Qadhi explains in his piece on the debate that it was likely to be because of the vagueness of the motion which stressed freedom to choose rather than Shariah ruling on the issue. But the fact that these kinds of discussions are taking place between Muslims (both men and women) is a step forward in providing a space to discuss issues that impact on the lives of Muslim women.